Reducing poisoning risks in your home

Poisoning is one of a parent’s worst fears, and those fears are well founded – about half of poisonings happen to children under six.

Among Canadians of all ages, poisoning is the fourth-leading cause of injury deaths and the fifth-leading cause of hospitalizations.

While even one preventable death or injury is too many, great progress has been made in keeping our kids safe: child-resistant packaging, the introduction of provincial poison control centres and education about safe storage have led to a dramatic reduction in the number of serious poisoning injuries among Canadian children. Unintentional poisoning is estimated to cause about three deaths and 900 serious injuries each year in Canada among children aged 14 years and younger.

Less well known, however, is that more than two-thirds of severe poisonings – poisoning that results in acute injury or death – now happen to people over the age of 19. The leading causes of poisoning deaths and severe injuries among adults are alcohol, medications and illicit drugs. Among elderly adults, the greatest risk is medication error – taking the wrong medications or the wrong dose.

Overall, the most common cause of poisoning is prescription medication, followed by household products such as alcohol, cleaners, pesticides, fertilizer, paint thinner and beauty products. Potentially harmful products that look or taste like candy, such as gummy-style vitamins, are particularly dangerous for children. For example, with their bright colours and candy-like shapes, laundry detergent packages have emerged as a threat, leading to a study by the Canadian Paediatric Association.

Products that are not in their original packaging increase poisoning risk for both children and adults. For example, Canadian teenagers are poisoned each year by toxic substances such as antifreeze that have been stored in soft drink or liquor bottles.

To keep you and your family as safe as possible, consider these safeguards.

  • Remember that “child-resistant” does not mean “child-safe.” In studies, up to 20 per cent of young children were able to open these containers within minutes, and many more were able to open them given more time. Even child-resistant containers must be kept in a locked cabinet.

  • Keep potentially poisonous products in their original, labelled container, in a safe place.

  • Keep the telephone number of your province’s poison control centre displayed prominently in your home and save it to your mobile phone’s contact list.

  • If someone is unconscious or having trouble breathing, call 911 immediately. Let them know if you suspect poisoning.

  • Be aware that not all households will be as safe as your own. Young children need to be carefully supervised in the homes of grandparents or other family members who may not have these safety measures in place. If you have young children, check in with any visitors staying in your home to ensure their medications, etc., are safely stored.

  • If you are elderly or cognitively impaired (due to illness, the side effects of prescribed medication, sleep deprivation or brain injury) your pharmacist can help you reduce the risk of medication errors by packaging your medication in appropriate daily dosages.

  • Return any unused medication to your pharmacist for safe disposal.

Read: Reduce your Rx waste and safely dispose of your medication with these tips

Finally, remember that your pharmacist is an expert on all prescription and over-the-counter medications, and is available to answer any questions you may have.